Pipe Snakes: Cylindrophiidae

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PIPE SNAKES: Cylindrophiidae



The family name Cylindrophiidae points out one of the pipe snakes' most noticeable features: their tube- or cylinder-shaped bodies. The family includes nine species, which are often called Asian pipe snakes to set them apart from other families of snakes that some people also call pipe snakes. These include the somewhat similar-looking false coral snakes of the family Aniliidae and the false blind snakes of the family Anomochilidae.

The pipe snakes are usually dark brown to black with yellow or reddish bands running from the belly up the sides of the back. The back bands are sometimes very pale and difficult to see. The underside of the tail, however, usually has a very bright red or yellow tip. Some pipe snakes have stripes, and others have light-colored spots that color the middle of the snake's back from head to tail. Counted from one side over the back and down the other side, they have seventeen to twenty-three rows of scales. The head, which is no wider than the neck, is rounded and contains two small eyes with round or slightly oblong pupils and two nostrils that each sit inside a single scale. Pipe snakes also have a very short, pointy tail that is about as thick as the rest of the body. The tail in a snake begins at the vent, a slitlike opening on the underside of the animal. Pipe snakes are small- to medium-sized snakes, ranging from 1 to 3 feet (0.4 to 1 meters) long.


Pipe snakes live in Indonesia, including Borneo, Sumatra, and Aru Island west of New Guinea; Sri Lanka or Ceylon off the coast of southern India; and southern China. They also exist in much of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam.


Pipe snakes tend to live in low-lying forests near a water source and in rice paddies, but they may also crawl into nearby villages and towns. They often slither under leaves or into soft, moist soil on the ground. They are also excellent swimmers.


The red-tailed pipe snake, and probably the other eight species, eats long and thin animals, including other snakes, eels, and lengthy lizards. For this reason, their jaws do not need to open as wide and their necks and bodies do not need to stretch as much as other snakes, which eat prey that are larger around. The pipe snakes are constrictors (kun-STRIK-tuhrs), which means that the snake will grasp its prey by looping its body around the animal and squeezing. For small prey, the snake may hold the animal just until it can reach its head around and eat it. For larger animals, the snake squeezes the prey until it cannot breathe and stops moving before eating it. People who keep pipe snakes in captivity find that the snakes will also eat small mice and fish.

Pipe snakes swallow in an unusual way. After swallowing part-way with some of the prey still hanging outside, the snake shuts its mouth, curves its backbone back and forth, and then reopens its mouth while quickly straightening out the backbone, which causes the head to shoot forward over more of the prey's body. Some people believe the snake may dig through the soil by the same method, but no one has seen this.


Scientific names for animals, such as Cylindrophis ruffus, may appear to be long and confusing, but they actually make it much easier for researchers to tell animals apart. This is because all scientists around the world use the same scientific names no matter what language they speak. This is not true of common names. For example, among just the English-speaking people, some use the common name of pipe snake for the nine species in the family Cylindrophiidae, but others use it to mean the species in the family Aniliidae or those in the family Anomochilidae. A scientific name has two parts: the genus name, which notes the general group to which the animal belongs, and the species name, which reveals the exact type of animal. In addition, the genus name tells scientists which animals are the most closely related. All nine members of the Cylindrophiidae family, for instance, are of the same genus and are therefore closely related.


Pipe snakes stay out of sight in the dirt or under leaves much of the time but will crawl about above ground after a heavy rain. Their most noted behavior is a defense tactic that involves flattening out the body and then raising and curling over the tail to show off its bright red or yellow color. At the same time, they bury the head under part of the body and wave the now flattened tail. Although the pipe snake performs the display with its tail rather than its head, it looks much like the flattened neck and head-waving behavior seen in cobras. The display may be enough to convince an attacking animal, called a predator (PREH-duh-ter), from taking a bite out of the pipe snake. If the display does not work, however, and the predator so much as touches the snake, the pipe snake will ooze a bad-smelling mixture from its vent area. Captured snakes will continue to perform the cobra display and give off the bad-smelling material for a few weeks, but eventually they get used to their new surroundings and people and stop both behaviors.

Based on information collected by watching captive snakes, the pipe snakes are able to dig quite swiftly through unpacked soil and will make tunnels that are about twice as wide as their bodies. While the wide tunnels do give them room to turn around, these snakes are able to slither frontward and backward at about the same speed. Scientists know little else about their behavior.

Pipe snakes give birth to live babies rather than eggs, most mothers having two to five young at a time. Larger females may have closer to five young, and smaller females may have closer to two. The baby snakes are quite large, often measuring half the length of the mother's body.


Pipe snakes and humans have little contact.


These species are not listed as endangered or threatened. Like many other species that live much of their lives underground, however, scientists have little information about their numbers in the wild.


Physical characteristics: The small, nonvenomous (nahn-VEH-nuh-mus) red-tailed pipe snake is a black snake with reddish or white bands. The back is slightly iridescent (IH-rih-DEH-sent), which means that it reflects different colors depending on how light bounces off. In the bright sunshine, for example, the scales may shine blue, green, yellow, or red. The undersides have a black and white checkerboard pattern, except for the tail. The tail is banded with black, white, and sometimes red and has a red tip. Adults usually reach about 15.5 to 16 inches (39 to 41 centimeters) long but can grow to about twice that size.

Geographic range: Red-tailed pipe snakes are found in southern China and much of Indonesia and southeast Asia.

Habitat: Red-tailed pipe snakes spend most of their time under leaves or in burrows that they can dig themselves. They live in forests, often near a water source, and in rice paddies, but they may also live in nearby villages and towns.

Diet: It eats other snakes, lizards, and eels. A constrictor, it is able to squeeze the prey animals until they cannot breathe and either pass out or die before being eaten.

Behavior and reproduction: The red-tailed pipe snake is mostly known for its behavior when it feels threatened. The snake will flatten out its body and raise its tail, moving it much as a cobra would wave its flattened neck and head. Although the tail can do no harm, the display is often enough to convince an attacking animal to leave the snake alone. This species gives birth to baby snakes rather than eggs. The females typically have two young at a time but occasionally have up to twelve. Young are about 7 inches (18 centimeters) long at birth.

Red-tailed pipe snakes and people: Humans and these snakes have little contact.

Conservation status: These species are not listed as endangered or threatened. Like many other species that live much of their lives underground, however, scientists have little information about their numbers in the wild. ∎



Burnie, David, and Don Wilson, eds. The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. New York: DK Publishing, 2001.

Mattison, C. The Encyclopedia of Snakes. New York: Facts on File, 1995.

Mehrtens, John M. Living Snakes of the World in Color. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1987.

Zug, G. R., L. J. Vitt, and J. P. Caldwell. Herpetology: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles. 2nd ed. San Diego: Academic Press, 2001.

Web sites

Cylindrophis maculates (Linne's Earth Snake) Linne 1754." Upeka Premaratne. http://members.fortunecity.com/ukp001/naja/cylindrophiidae/cylindrophis_maculatus.htm (accessed on September 22, 2004).

"Red-tailed Pipe Snake." Ecology Asia. http://www.ecologyasia.com/Vertebrates/red-tailed_pipe_snake.htm (accessed on September 22, 2004).